If your community is in its early stages, then you’re probably frustrated with low engagement. This is called the cold start or the "chicken or egg" problem. It refers to the problem of getting enough critical mass to trigger a positive feedback loop. If the people on a network produce the majority of value for other users, how do you get the first users to join?
Keep in mind that it will take over 3 months from that cold start to gain traction in a community. If you expect results overnight, you'll give up far too easily. Community building is a long term commitment.
Your founding members are those 5-10 members who give a damn about your community. They form a healthy layer of connective tissue between your brand and community.
Your first 10 members are an extension of your founding team. One difference between your founding team and these super users is that they take the role of a consumer rather than curator. In this article, I'll walk you through how to get your community rolling.
Back to basics
The simplest way to find early community members is to use existing data. As a business, you're bound to have access to email addresses of customers.
Draft a simple outbound email campaign to your existing subscriber base. Talk about your online community to check if people are interested in becoming a part of it. Create an application process and add interested members into a waitlist. If enough people engage with your email campaign, you know you're onto something.
Don't worry about scaling
The onboarding experience needs to be high touch. This especially important with your first ten members. When Paul Graham talks about doing things that don't scale (like Airbnb did in the early days), this is what he means. From a product lens, it means doubling down on improving features for your biggest fans.
You also have to do things that don't scale in terms of personal outreach and relationship building. Many founders find this advice to be a tough pill to swallow. They don't want to prioritize efforts that aren't scalable. It's easy to invest the bare minimum, focus on building the product, and hope it all takes off.
Build hype to the start of your community by showing testimonials. Social proof of influential people joining your community can also help. Constantly build momentum before the launch. Create an intentional bottleneck to pool together everyone that's interested. People want to see other people. Create artificial scarcity. Onboard members in cohorts rather than individuals.
The Wizard of Oz MVP
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need a product or community to start advertising. Your goal is to validate the demand for a direction. With a ton of community accessories out there, you might feel like scaling up quickly.
Instead, you want to earn the right to build more. I want to introduce you to a concept called the Wizard of Oz MVP.
You have to earn the right to build more. Until then, fill in the gaps in your MVP manually.
When you're building a community from scratch, you don't need all of the pieces at once. You just need to provide enough value to earn the right to get to the next step.
Just like the Wizard of Oz fooled Dorothy and her friends into believing that there was an actual Wizard, you too should be the man behind the curtain. The one who manually curates a complete experience. Add complexity in increments.
The X factor
To build a community with staying power, you need to dig into what is missing in the market. Once you have gathered a group of people who share a similar interest, you should be able to distance yourself from other existing networks.
Your X factor is that element of stickiness that discourages your community members from switching to a similar offering.
One way to improve your X factor is to be specific to who you're building for and set yourself away from the crowd.
Define who your community is for and, even more importantly, who it's not for. Unfortunately, many communities fail to adhere to this principle. They might start with an exclusive community, where members pour their hearts out. But before long, you have a bunch of people who reduce the quality of the discussion. Over time, you end up losing the burning hot ember of what makes your community special. This happens because your original members believe that it's no longer a place for honest conversations.
Be very disciplined about who makes it in, and who you kindly have to turn down. This focus on member standards might put an upper limit on your membership, but the tradeoff to get higher quality conversations is worth it.
Posture yourself as the community that is missing in the market by starting a niche.
A Standalone Single Player Experience
If P2P interactions in a community are healthy, the (n+1)th member has more to gain from joining the community than the (n)th did. This paves the way for lasting growth.
But before network effects (Nfx) kicks in, you need to curate a valuable single player experience in your community.
LinkedIn for example is a social network with strong network effects. But in the early days before the Nfx kicked in, the platform was being used for referencing CVs. Users found value in being able to share their own work profiles and scroll through that of their contemporaries'.
This provided early users enough reason to come back every day.
Soon enough, conversations and connections will begin sparking. This will eventually create a multiplayer experience from a coalition of single players.
Building a community from scratch isn’t easy. We understand how frustrating it can be. But unlike us, you don’t have to do it alone. Reach out to our team at Scenes, and we’ll guide you through the whole process.